After nearly 20 years of consistently working in Hollywood, at the age of 44, Taraji P. Henson is finally a household name.
“White people finally know who I am!” Henson joked in her monologue during her stint as a Saturday Night Live guest host back in April. “I’ve been around for a while, but a lot of you are just getting to know me as Cookie on Empire.” she continued.
Henson followed up the joke with a cute musical number, celebrating her success, “I Made it.”
While most of us laughed along with Henson, we have to acknowledge the harsh truth in her little quip. Taraji P. Henson joins a long line of talented black actresses who were either approaching or have surpassed the big 4-0 before finally getting the recognition they deserve. And like other members of the nearly/over 40 club, such as Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, Henson had to go to television, traditionally considered a step down for film actresses, in order to finally get her due. After years of dealing with sexism and racism, many black actresses who finally “make it” now get to deal with the good old-fashioned brand of Hollywood age-ism, that’s exclusively earmarked for women, as well.
Henson recently spoke about the importance of supporting up and coming black actresses at the New York Black Film Festival.
“It’s so important for us who have made it to reach back and bring new faces along. I’m not going to last forever. It’s time for us to start cultivating these new talents.”
But, new talents face a lot of challenges. The perils of Hollywood are more than enough to send many up-and-comers desperately running in the opposite direction.
Back in 2014, during Oscar season, actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence were pitted against one another as “up-and-comers.” Lawrence had quite a few roles and accolades under her belt at the age of 22. Nyong’o, however, at nearly 10 years older than Lawrence, and a classically trained actress, was just getting started in her career in the United States.
Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is The New Black” fame, recently revealed that she had actually decided to quit acting and go back to law school on the same exact day she was hired for her role as Suzanne on the series. Like Nyong’o, Uduba is also classically trained. She has also appeared on Broadway.
Then there’s the spate of black teen and child actresses that mysteriously disappear after they hit their late teens, only to re-emerge in their late 20’s or 30’s. While some of these young women might leave the industry for a while to pursue other interests, others languish in secondary roles and low-budget pictures hoping for another big break.
It’s great to see actresses like Taraji P. Henson speak out, and hopefully the upcoming fall season which boasts several pilots starring black actresses will end up being a step in the right direction towards developing young talents.